The 1962 New York Mets ended their season — their first — with 40 wins and 120 losses. They were at the bottom of the National League, 60.5 games out of first place. They were historically inept, inspiring Jimmy Breslin to write a book titled with a quote from the manager, Casey Stengel: "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?"
What was the Texas Legislature's version of 40 wins and 120 losses? What taxpayers got for their $2 million — roughly the cost of a special legislative session — was a resurrection of the public school section of the state budget, which had been vetoed last month by Gov. Rick Perry, and a bill designed to promote renewable energy. Solar panels, for instance, or turbines powered by water or wind. They were promoting wind farms in west and north Texas, not at the palace of government in Austin.
As for the other issues on the governor's special session agenda, Texans got bupkis. Nothing on school finance, tax swapping, or education reform. Nothing on legislation increasing judicial pay and legislative retirement. Nothing on opening telecommunications and cable television markets, or allowing data to be sent via broadband over power lines. Nothing on limiting governments' ability to force private landowners to sell their properties for economic development.
But it's all back. Perry called them back to work starting the next morning and set an agenda that includes some education reform, school property tax reductions, tuition revenue bonds to fund facilities at state colleges and universities, and telecommunications legislation allowing phone companies into the video/TV business. The big issue that snuck up on lawmakers after the regular session — whether governments should be able to use eminent domain to take over land for economic development, and how — will probably be added to the agenda when the kinks are worked out.
The Train Schedule
At a joint news conference, House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said they've got a plan for the second special session, but they weren't willing to predict whether it would end in less than the allotted 30 days.
For your calendar, draw a line starting on July 21 and ending on Friday, August 19. Some of the state's public schools will start classes before lawmakers have worked out their funding for the rest of the school year.
The plan is for the House and the Senate to zip bills through the various committees without hearings or much debate, get them to the respective legislative chambers for floor votes, send them across the rotunda, lather, rinse, repeat, and then send them to conference committees for tinkering. The theory is that lawmakers have already been over this stuff and that there's no need to invite the public for testimony this time out. Several pieces of legislation were queued up for final votes during the first special session, but weren't finished because lawmakers put school finance first.
That has an advantage; groups that want their own special bills — like the phone companies that have been clamoring to get into markets now dominated by cable television companies — are forced to lobby for school reform and tax swaps. If things are in the right order, legislative leaders get free help from expensive lobbyists. Legislators with colleges and universities at home want tuition revenue bonds to pass, and the TRBs become levers for their votes on the school stuff.
Craddick and Dewhurst hope to move bills through the originating houses during the first week of the session, lining things up for resolution in or after the second week.
Sidebar: Craddick is skipping the usual committees this time and handing matters directly to the ten people who've been trying to get the two school bills out of the Pink Building for the last seven months. His conference committee on taxes and his conference committee on education have been put into special committees. The two bills will start there, go to the full House and then into the ether of House-Senate parley.
Fall Down Six Times, Get Up Seven Times
However you prefer to spin this — either as the biggest tax cut in state history or the biggest tax increase in state history — Texas lawmakers were looking at a shrunken version of what they said they'd consider "significant."
More than a year ago, all 31 senators said they wanted to cut local school property taxes in half, to 75 cents from $1.50. The House, a few months later, went after its version of property tax relief, aiming at a 50-cent cut. When they broke camp on the tax bill in the last days of the special session, they were millimeters apart on a proposal that would have cut about 25 cents from local bills.
And this time, when they said they were close, they really were. The deal sheets floating between the two houses showed they had agreed on most of the big elements of a tax bill. They remained apart, however, on some key issues, and neither chamber's leadership got far enough along to know whether their machinations — all behind closed doors, a nasty habit of this Legislature — had produced bills that would win the support of most senators and representatives.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wanted some things that House leaders said would kill the bill on parliamentary grounds. The Senate's proposal for a sales tax break for low-income Texans, for instance, wasn't "germane" to the bill in the House's view. A point of order from an opponent, saying the provision was out of bounds, would kill it. Both sides said they'd sign off on a 0.7 -cent increase in the state sales tax, bringing it to 6.95 percent. But the Senate wanted to tie that to a voter referendum on sales taxes and homestead exemptions, while House Speaker Tom Craddick and his negotiators wanted a clean increase without any embellishments.
They agreed on some big stuff and might remain in agreement. Both sides want to close loopholes left in the franchise tax by earlier lawmakers. They agreed to tax companies on out-of-state transactions where the other state doesn't have a franchise tax. They agreed to end the sales tax exemption for Internet access, for motor vehicle repair, and for some computer programming and maintenance. They'd both add $1 to the tax on a pack of smokes, ignoring an ad campaign launched by tobacco interests. They appeared to agree to put away plans to tax bottled water and to increase taxes on alcohol. They'd tie sales taxes on used cars to Blue Book values instead of using "liar's affidavits" where sellers and buyers can write down the price and base the tax on that.
One of the last deal sheets floating back and forth between the House's back hall and the Senate's back hall put the new property tax rate at $1.22 — down from the current $1.50. And it would have funded a $7,500 increase in homestead exemptions, which is worth about the same as a nickel cut in property tax rates. A rough example that doesn't take local property exemptions and such into account: The owner of a $200,000 home would see the local school property tax bill cut to $2,165.5 from $2,775. That's a little better than $50 per month in lower local school taxes in return for the higher state taxes raised to pay for it. Actual mileage may vary.
The Once and Future School Bill
The two Democrats on the Senate negotiating team — Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio and Royce West of Dallas — didn't sign the conference committee's report. And while you never know for sure how the Senate would have voted in the light of day, their usual backroom talks appeared to produce a tie vote or something close to it. It's not clear, in other words, that the legislation would have passed even without the walk-off filibuster from Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, which ended the special session.
Whitmire's close frustrated the Republicans but had a certain rationality to it: Why hurry, since Perry was hauling everybody back to work on the tax bill anyhow? If they like the bill they had on Wednesday, legislative leaders could roll it out again in a new session on Thursday, give everybody time to examine it, and pass it a week or two after the originally scheduled vote.
Democrats and some Republicans sniffed at several provisions of the school bill. A vote — had one been taken in either chamber — would have been close. House Speaker Tom Craddick told reporters he had only three votes to spare on the measure, by his count. And Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he had the votes, before Whitmire's filibuster. The Senate appeared to be even tighter than the House, and the bill's success would have depended in part on which senators were absent when the vote was taken. A test vote on a related measure raised the possibility that Dewhurst himself would have had to cast the deciding vote.
Expect something like that last-day measure to come out in the second special session. It did clear the conference committee, after all, before getting dragged into the legislative undertow. As more people read the legislation, however, more problems turn up. Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, passed a cleanup resolution that would have fixed 29 pages worth of errors and miscues in the legislation. One would have allowed school boards to post meeting times on the Internet instead of in local newspapers, a money-saving idea that lights up newspaper publishers (in a bad way) and that lawmakers generally don't want to change. Another created an unintended cap on spending in some big school districts, like Highland Park and Dallas. The "fixes" during this second session could reopen issues that seemed settled earlier this week, so put an asterisk on all of this — it could be subject to renegotiation.
Even with those glitches, the Republicans on the conference committee — five from the House and three from the Senate, with two Senate Democrats refusing to sign — gave their consent to some provocative changes you're likely to see again, and soon.
• They want November elections for school boards, moving those nonpartisan affairs out of the spring and into the fall. Supporters of that idea say the higher turnout will put more voters in the decision-making loop. Opponents say school boards will fall prey to partisans who are in season in November. Whitmire gave it as one big reason for his filibuster.
• The legislation creates a new 65 percent rule that some school districts don't like. The basic idea is that at least 65 percent of the money spent on public schools should go into classrooms, as opposed to transportation or janitorial or food services or administration or school safety or whatever. That's been broadened to include classroom teaching outside of the basics, but some districts still don't like it and they've made sure their legislators know it.
• It includes a cap on how much money the rich districts in the state have to share with the poor districts in the state. With some exceptions, those districts wouldn't have to share more than 38 percent of the money they raise locally. That cap would move if it threw equity formulas too far out of whack. Districts would be required to use the money to cut property taxes or to increase the amounts they send to poor districts, and they wouldn't be able to use the formulas to lower rates too much. They'd have to set tax rates no lower than 75 percent of the state's cap on property taxes; if the state cap was at $1.20, they'd have to tax their property owners at least 90 cents to keep the recapture protection. Even with all that, the caps increase the gap between rich and poor districts, and that gap is a key point of argument in the school finance fights in the Lege and in the courts. Some of the same legislators who say the rich districts should be able to spend more money on public education will also tell you that higher spending on public education doesn't improve it's quality. Go figure.
• The legislation would make school district finances more "transparent" or easier for outsiders to examine.
• Legislators have been tussling over textbooks for more than two years. In a budget crunch in 2003, they cut funding for textbooks. And while they were increasing the state budget by $22 billion this year, they still didn't fund the $295 million it would take to catch up on textbooks for public schools. That funding made it into the school reform bill, but only if the school reform and companion legislation both become law. With the start of a second special session with no changes in place, there's a better-than-even chance that some of the state's schools will start the academic year with their new materials still piled up in warehouses instead of lockers, backpacks and desks.
• It would impose a state set start date for public schools, to the first day after Labor Day, a change that's been pushed for several years by amusement parks and other businesses dependent on summer crowds. They contend earlier start dates cut into their business.
• It would phase in a change pushed by House leaders, testing students as soon as they finish each state-required course to see how they did. The Senate didn't include that; the legislation would start it up in the 2009-10 school year.
• Teachers would get a pay raise, and it would total $500, $1,000, $1,500, or $2,000, depending on where you get your information. Legislators wanted to add $500 to teacher pay across the board. They wanted to add $500 to a "pass-through" salary (state money passing through the local district to the teacher) that was created in 2001, halved in 2003. Lawmakers count that as $1,000, since that's the original amount of the stipend and since it would disappear altogether without legislative action. Teachers count it as a promise kept, broken and kept, but it would result in them getting $500 more next year than they got last year. The legislation also would add an average of $500 per teacher in incentive pay. Some teachers would get nothing, some would get more, and it would average out to $500. Call that nothing, or call it $500. Add everything up and you get $2,000. We count it as $1,000 — the amount of money going to teachers, for sure, they didn't get last year. Some would get incentive pay, but they'd add it to the $1,000 base.
Another Austin Attraction
Travis County prosecutors have been visiting with a steady stream of House members about the 2002 elections, asking questions about their contests that year and, more specifically, about the involvement in those contests of House Speaker Tom Craddick ad others.
We don't have a complete list of who's gone through — subpoenas apparently weren't issued to them and they weren't talking to grand jurors. Several were accompanied by Craddick's lawyer, Roy Minton. He says the questions have generally centered on how things worked in the elections and he may be the only one who would characterize it as "really kind of an entertaining deal." Minton said at least a half dozen have talked to prosecutors during the last couple of weeks, and said not all of them were from the group of lawmakers elected for the first time in 2002.
One of the state reps who talked to us on the condition we left him or her out of this said assistant district attorneys asked a lot of questions about "where checks got sent and routed and so on." That lawmaker also said many of the people in the class of 2002 — the freshmen who were elected that year — were being quizzed by prosecutors who "seemed to be crossing their T's and dotting their I's." Another interviewee was asked how involved Craddick got in that person's campaign, whether he was privy to campaign information like how much money was needed to complete the race, the status of the campaign, and copies of campaign plans. As we've said before, the statute of limitations runs on many of those cases between now and November, and the grand jury working on the case is in business until the end of September.
Travis County prosecutors declined our invitation to comment.
Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, won't seek reelection to the Senate next year. That sets up a replacement contest that could draw a half-dozen Republicans. Reps. Peggy Hamric, Joe Nixon, and Corbin Van Arsdale have been mentioned, as has Ben Streusand, a self-financing congressional candidate who fell short a year ago. The elbowing has just begun, though; there could be more and different names in this thing. Lindsay was Harris County Judge for 20 years before starting what will be an eight-year run in the Senate.
• Richard "Kinky" Friedman (that's how they're putting his name on press releases these days) raised $301,471 and spent $284,554 on his gubernatorial bid during the first six months of the year. Friedman, who'll be trying to get on the ballot next year as an independent, got a $100,000 contribution from John McCall of Spicewood, and another $60,000 from McCall later on. That's his campaign treasurer. He also pulled in $61,278.43 from "merchandise sales."
• Chris Bell, who plans to announce his intentions in a couple of weeks — he's in exploratory mode now — raised $152,653 and spent $127,593 during the first half of the year. The Houston Democrat's total includes a $50,000 contribution from Poppi Georges-Massey, listed as a Houston homemaker in the report.
• Texas Republican Party chair Tina Benkiser has a race in front of her. Dallas County GOP Chair Nate Crain's interest in the race made The Dallas Morning News, and Republicans who follow this sort of thing are buzzing about it. The election isn't for 11 months, and Collin County GOP Chairman Rick Neudorff sent an email to those folks telling them to keep their powder drive. He hints in that email that there will be more entries: "I urge you to join me in stepping back and refrain from making any early commitments until all of the facts and candidates are known."
• Put Republican Rich Phillips on your list of people who'd like to succeed Terry Keel, R-Austin, in the Texas House. We warned you that HD-47 would have more names, and so it does. Phillips, a self-employed management consultant, was once the public affairs director for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, and he worked in George H. W. Bush's reelection campaign in 1992. He's got a campaign website up: www.voterichphillips.com. Jimmy Evans, a lawyer who's also seeking to replace Keel, has also filed the initial papers to run for that seat.
And Former Rep. Dick Reynolds wants another go. Reynolds, a Republican, will be in the HD-47 race, too. He's had a number of government jobs: insurance commissioner, Texas Workers' Compensation Commissioner, executive director at TWCC, councilman and mayor pro tem of Richardson, and then two terms in the Texas House representing Richardson, Garland, and North Dallas.
• Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, hasn't officially declared his candidacy for Texas agriculture commissioner, but there are four people running for the seat he holds now, and the Texas Farm Bureau's political action committee — AGFUND — has endorsed him for the statewide post.
A few days earlier, AGFUND blessed current Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs' bid for comptroller. She's the only candidate actively running for that job, which is open because Carole Keeton Strayhorn is running for governor against Rick Perry next year.
• Austin attorney William "Bill" Davidson is running for the 3rd Court of Appeals as a Republican. He's running for the position now held by Democrat Bea Ann Smith, who's not seeking reelection. He's a lawyer with Minter, Joseph & Thornhill and he's been in Austin for 49 years. Diane Henson, a Democrat, has already said she's after the same job.
Strayhorn's Top Contributors
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn raised $1.5 million for her challenge of Gov. Rick Perry in the GOP primaries next March and said she had $7 million in the bank at the end of last month.
Below is a list of people and organizations that gave her more than $25,000 during the truncated fundraising season that began on June 20 and ended June 30. Some notes are in order to fill in blanks you'll see below. Ryan & Co. is a tax consultancy in Dallas that employs, among others, former Comptroller John Sharp. AtlanGroup of Dallas is a dental practice owned and operated by David and Martha Al-Ameel. Scooter Griffin, described by the campaign as an old friend of Strayhorn's, is the name behind MML Ventures and Family Land Heritage Trust of Kilgore. People listed twice gave twice. Click here for a chart that includes all donations of $10,000 or more. And you can also look at the entire report online at the Texas Ethics Commission. Contributions are grouped by amounts given.
• $200,000.00 : Ryan & Company PAC, Dallas.
• $100,000.00 : AtlanGroup, L.L.C., Dallas; John Eddie Williams, Jr., Attorney, Williams-Bailey L.L.P., Houston; WalterUmphrey, Attorney, Provost Umphrey Law Firm, LLP, Beaumont.
• $50,000.00 : George Ryan, CPA, Ryan & Company, P.C., Dallas; Gerald Ridgely, Principal, Ryan & Co., Dallas; Kenneth Banks, Owner, International Muffler Co., Schulenburg; MML Ventures, Ltd., Kilgore.
• $40,000.00 : James Trester, CPA-State and Local Tax Services, Ryan & Company, Plano.
• $30,000.00 : Patrick Moran, Oil & Gas Exploration, Moran Resources Company, Houston; Ramsay Gillman, President, Gillman Companies, Houston.
Perry's Top Contributors
Gov. Rick Perry raised $2.3 million during the last ten days of June, but his campaign got confused about how much money they had in the bank. After first reporting cash on hand of $8.4 million, they revised the number a few hours later to $8.8 million. Either way, it's a bundle.
The goof, according to campaign manager Luis Saenz, was made when someone double-counted a radio advertising buy and somehow managed to record it as an expense in June and in July. It was in July, he says, and the campaign added $400,000 to what it had first reported as money in the bank. Perry's list of big supporters (over $25,000) is a few lines longer than the comptroller's, as you can see. (Click here for a list of donors who gave $10,000 or more. The full versioqn can be had from the Texas Ethics Commission.) The contributions are grouped by amounts given.
• $50,000: Bob Perry, CEO, Perry Homes, Houston; Charles Wood Jr., Chairman, Dallas Fire Insurance Company, Dallas; Doylene Perry, Retired, Retired, Houston; H. Perot Jr., Chairman, Hillwood Development Corp., Plano; Harold Simmons, CEO, Contran Corporation, Dallas; James Leininger, Chairman, Kinetic Concepts, Inc., San Antonio; John Nau III, President & CEO, Silver Eagle Distributors, L.P., Houston; Kenny Troutt, Investments, Self, Dallas; Larry Anders, Chairman/CEO, Summit Alliance Companies, Plano; Loeffler Tuggey Pauerstein Rosenthal LLP, San Antonio; Lonnie Pilgrim, Owner, Pilgrims Pride, Pittsburg; Robert Rowling, investor, TRT Holdings, Inc., Irving; T. Friedkin, President, Friedkin Companies, Inc., Houston; Thomas Friedkin, Chairman, Friedkin Companies Inc., Houston; Woody Hunt, Developer/Contractor, Hunt Building Corporation, El Paso.
• $40,000: James Lee, Principal, E,Trade Professional Trading, LLC, Houston.
• $34,000: Charles Lawrence, Chairman, Kirby Corp., Houston.
Quotes of the Week
Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan: "It's not really a tax-cut bill. It's a tax-shift bill, and it's hard to build a solid constituency for a tax shift. For every person that gets a break, another one has to pay a higher tax, so every time you make somebody happy you make somebody else mad."
Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, talking about the school reform bill in The Dallas Morning News: "I've got 98 school districts. I haven't had one call me and say, 'Man, we've got to have this.'"
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, before starting a filibuster against the (then) surviving half of a school reform package: "We can do better if given additional time. We're going to be here tomorrow anyway."
Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, in The Dallas Morning News: "The overwhelming sentiment in the Capitol is the House doesn't want to vote on a tax bill because they can't pass one. The speaker may have been protecting his members."
Gov. Rick Perry, on the situation at hand, in The Dallas Morning News: "Education reform and property tax relief are the two most significant issues the Legislature faces. Lawmakers won't leave Austin until both priorities are addressed."
Robert Black, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry: "It's the governor's position if they want to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Festivus here, that's fine, because they're staying till they get it done."
Texas Weekly: Volume 22, Issue 8, 25 July 2005. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2005 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.